Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 349 | Agosto 2010



200 Years of Independence, 100 Years of Revolution

Those up above promise a noisy, demagogic, manipulative celebration, empty of any content belonging to the deeper Mexico, invoking historic dates, bronze heroes and calcified tableaux that could make one forget the grassroots rebellions that accompanied Independence and the Revolution. Those down below persist in a discreet commemoration, full of substance and small actions that revitalize memories and take risks on the changes Mexico needs.

Jorge Alonso

Thanks to the Mexican government’s deep-rooted conservatism, it seems unable to cope with Independence and the Revolution that marked Mexican history. Questioned for its anti-democratic origins, this government has attempted to intensify ruinous neoliberal policies rather than transform that worn-out economic model. Its central plans include the privatization of strategic sectors: energy, mining, water, health, science and technology. It has tried to roll back the Revolution’s social triumphs, violating the rights of indigenous peoples, farmers and workers. It has persistently violated elementary human rights and its failed war against drug trafficking has increased violence virtually everywhere in the country, which is now drowning in bloody insecurity.

Subject to the real economic and media powers behind the scenes, this government has been infiltrated by organized crime, which champions corruption and inefficiency. Poverty is on the rise, public resources have been squandered and inequality has become intolerable. While Bishop Raúl Vera insists President Calderón Sol is leading the country into failed statehood, Calderón attacks those who don’t want to submit to him, just as the dictator Porfirio Díaz did, and spends lavish amounts on the centennial and bicentennial celebrations.

Cárdenas says we have
“nothing to celebrate”

The National Action Party (PAN) government is uncomfortable with a past that hails from a revolutionary tradition: the movements for Independence and the Revolution were grassroots uprisings against conservative orders just like those misgoverning the country today.

At the outset Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, founder of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), agreed to coordinate the bicentennial events but he soon realized he couldn’t work coherently with such an anti-people PAN government and he resigned. Cárdenas declared that we Mexicans have nothing to celebrate in 2010 given that Mexico is undergoing one of the greatest crises of its history. Instead of more jobs, better incomes and better social and economic conditions, there are fewer opportunities, a lack of economic growth and deteriorating social conditions. “I can’t see that we need to celebrate unemployment, fewer salaries and emptier tables,” he said.

What remains of all that?

Some 50 million Mexicans don’t have enough income to satisfy their basic needs. Of these, 20 million aren’t able to buy the basket of basic food provisions. Cárdenas regretted that a country with resources and human potential should today be at a standstill. He recalled that from Independence we should defend the notion that the country’s sovereignty resides in its people and that we’re all free and equal. He also said we need to remember that in 1810 Hidalgo called for the overthrow of the bad government and that thousands of Mexicans unleashed the first great revolution of their history. He evoked Morelos who insisted that good laws would be needed to moderate opulence and misery.

In 1906 Ricardo Flores Magón argued for abolishing the death penalty, creating a lay State, obligatory schooling, an eight-hour day, the minimum wage, domestic labor regulation, the State’s obligation to house its workers, the obligation to provide land to those who wanted to work it, limits on rural property and the establishment of a union with Latin American countries… The birth of the 1917 Constitution was the fruit of the 1910 revolutionary movement. That first social Constitution outlined the restitution of land to communities that had it taken away, recognized the rights of workers and prohibited monopolies, except for those perceived as State instruments for collective benefit. Cárdenas recalled all this and made us see that both Independence and the Revolution had drawn on other freedom struggles of the Mexican people, bringing about great changes in Mexico. These movements didn’t develop in a lineal fashion.

Mexico’s current situation is highly precarious and the country obviously needs profound changes in its social
and economic circumstances, given that many aspirations of our great revolutionary movements have remained unfulfilled. Cárdenas criticized political opportunism; the dismantling of key sectors of production such as agriculture and small and medium enterprise, which are the greatest job creators; privatization and foreign involvement in basic services such as banking. He urged Mexicans to transform the present degradation and desperation by fulfilling
the ideals of the Independence movement and the Revolution.

How to celebrate that rebelliousness?

The historian Lorenzo Meyer has reflected that two centuries on from the Independence struggle and one century on from the struggle to destroy an oligarchic dictatorship, we can confirm that neither event turned out the way we hoped, given that they didn’t manage to set Mexico on the road to concrete, fair material and social development.

He criticizes the PAN government for wanting to celebrate two dramatic events of popular rebellion in a spectacular manner, when it would be more appropriate to initiate a mass reflection on why these two historic moments have not fulfilled the expectations of those who initiated them, nor their long-term promises. Given the conservative and anti-people nature of the PAN regime, this reflection could not come from the official group, but rather only from outside.

Porfirio Muñoz Ledo has pointed out that Independence and the Revolution put an end to long periods of history that ended up with the overhtrow of political systems. What Mexico is suffering now is the slow agony of governmental decadence and its impotence to reverse national disintegration. Those who are actually carrying out a living celebration of these two events are the workers and grassroots sectors resisting government and transnational oppression.

What they are
saying from above

From above in regime circles the voice of a commentator who has prospered through the last two governments, both the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the PAN, has been raised along with that of one of President Fox’s former foreign relations secretaries. Both are putting forward proposals for what they call “the future of Mexico.”

Their main argument is that Mexicans should break with the past because they’ve been immobilized by the weight of their history. They claim that this accumulated history is obstructing the future. They recommend abandoning “energetic nationalism” and the defense of farmers and common property and suggest the construction of a middle-class society. They advise abolishing and privatizing state monopolies—the Mexican Oil Company for starters. They maintain that Mexico isn’t in danger of rebellions, but rather enjoys clear stability. They come down on the side of concentrating army and police efforts on sealing off the south of the country and recommend that Mexico put its Latin American sentiments to one side and swallow a reality that places it fully in North America.

They say another direction
is urgently needed

Also from above, but not from the regime, two other voices have been heard, those of economists Carlos Cordera and Carlos Tello. They have proposed analyzing the nation’s new challenge, maintaining that the economic policy applied since 1982 hasn’t yielded the promised results and other directions must be sought. Their opinion is that history is a fundamental analytical instrument for constructing the future. They criticize the privatization of public companies, public spending cuts, the re-privatization of banks, the corrosion of the labor market and massive youth unemployment. Many young people have emigrated and send remittances back to the country but the amount, while significant, isn’t enough to compensate for the flight of human capital.

They propose state social reform. Without state intervention, poverty and inequality feed social demands that they believe could lead to a crisis and greater dislocation in basic social relations. They argue that social dissatisfaction is on the rise and has become a political storm, causing diverse social mobilizations. They propose a return to society and insist on nationalizing globalization and a mixed economy rather than free market fundamentalism. If this isn’t done, they say, the social contract is at risk.

What they’re saying from
below and in the Left

All these analyses focus on the State and its behavior and propose changes to avoid rebellion from below. Not a few grassroots leftwing groupings have been analyzing things differently. They claim that there were important movements of the exploited and oppressed both in Independence and the Revolution, but in the end the elite took advantage of them. In the case of the Revolution, a dominant new order was inaugurated with corporativism and paternalism directed at the subjugated lower classes.

Some groups think an authentic celebration would be to organize another revolution. They argue that with the arrival of 2010 the possibility of starting an insurrectionary struggle should be introduced into the collective discussion, instead of falling into the trap of bi-centennial myths. They recall the Cananea and Río Blanco strikes at the start of the 20th century, which were hit hard by the Porfirio dictatorship; while at the beginning of the 21st century movements such as those in Atenco, Oaxaca, the miners in Cananea and the electricity workers have been harshly repressed.

These groups see the capitalist crisis as a good opportunity for an insurrection. They argue that the struggle has to be along class lines, consciously organized and with a global perspective. These are small groups that insist the State must be overthrown and political power taken over through a revolutionary party in order to build a “different world.” They are keeping the dogmas of the Left alive, but apart from their pronouncements there are no signs they might possibly incite and command this insurrection.

What those from “the
insurrection in progress” say

There are also a large number of groups who have set themselves an anti-capitalist and anti-State goal for the long run, without hierarchies, without chiefs or parties, unaffected by the calendars of those on high. It is these widely varying grassroots organizations that have identified themselves with the so-called “Other Campaign.”

They are aware that they are educating for, in and on behalf of the resistance. The experiences of different initiatives circulate among them and they are learning from them. They are respectful of the knowledge of the peoples who existed before Spanish colonization and have retained their independent spirit. They have been working to shape an anti-capitalist identity, encouraging autonomous projects. There is a great spirit of solidarity among them and they continually collect each other’s proposals to systematize them and translate them into lines of action in what Gustavo Esteva has called “the insurrection in progress.”

This isn’t the coming insurrection but rather one that can already be found in many places around the country. It’s not announced with drums and cymbals and doesn’t consist of manifestoes, marches, pickets, or armed uprisings. It can be found where people with dignity and courage pressure for their own ways of living, defying the status quo, the dominant system, the economic and political regime that has brought the country to its knees in a catastrophic situation. It’s a rebellion of the discontented but also one of knowledge and imagination that are expressed in unusual and hidden ways.

In this dangerous moment

These new converging groups are dealing with the bicentenary and the centenary by following the advice of Walter Benjamin: own their shining memories in the moment of danger, with the idea that the dead below will not be safe from the capitalist enemy if it continues imposing itself. They know that Independence wouldn’t have happened if it had been left up to the will of a few native-born colonialists and if it weren’t for the uprisings throughout the country of thousands of indigenous people who fought for respect for their territories and their ways of being and deciding.

The Mexican Revolution was neither a homogenous nor a unitary movement. Adolfo Gilly has defined it as a peasant, agricultural and radical-democratic revolution, made up of diverse forces and changing alliances. Gilly has emphasized that it was a radical struggle of the masses with their weapons in hand against exploitation, humiliation and contempt that had an anti-capitalist dynamic at its core. Its spirit still inspires many movements, among them the Zapatistas who rose up against the theft of common property.

How they are celebrating in Mezcala

One example of how the groupings in the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign are relating to the Bicentennial can be found in the indigenous community of Mezcala, located on the shores of Lake Chapala. These communards have an exceptionally solid historical identity, which is a living legacy and inspiration in their current fight.

Indigenous people from Mezcala fought on Hidalgo’s side in the fight for independence. When he was defeated in 1811 by the viceroy’s forces at the Battle of Calderón Bridge, many of these indigenous groups dispersed. The viceroy’s forces opted to suffocate all embers of the rebellion and were succeeding, but when they arrived at Mezcala, located between a big hill and the lake, the indigenous people defeated a well armed contingent with only their slingshots. The rest of the viceroy’s troops were billeted in the region’s most important town so to stop them from carrying out reprisals, the natives went after them and defeated them too. Later on they decided to entrench themselves on the island facing their town.

How the indigenous peoples
remember their independence

The viceroy’s army decided this made things easier for them. They sent for boats from the Pacific coast and rebuilt them in front of Mezcala Island. Meanwhile the indigenous people surrounded the island with stakes submerged in the water. When the boats arrived they got stuck a stone’s throw away. The Indians’ skill with their slingshots once again ensured them a great victory.

From 1812 to 1816 the Mezcala insurgents resisted the siege; several times breaking through and attacking the viceroy’s fortifications on the lake shore. Out of 25 significant skirmishes, only in one did they lose a significant amount of warriors; they won all the rest.

The indigenous people managed to seize a lot of weapons and cannons, which they then used. They also captured one of the viceroy’s biggest boats. On seeing that they couldn’t defeat the Indians, the royalists offered them a truce.

After much consideration the insurgents accepted, because they had been decimated by plague and the terms implied a great victory for them since their lands were returned, they were given seeds, oxen and food, and the viceroy’s army agreed not to levy civil or religious taxes. They appointed the indigenous leader José Santana to be in charge of the region and the island.

The communards of Mezcala celebrate this struggle every year, emphasizing that they weren’t defeated and that the current defense of their lands is a continuation of their ancestors’ struggle. They don’t celebrate September 16 like the rest of Mexico but November 25, the date on which they won back their territory and their autonomy was respected.

Victorious after
a four-year siege

One crucially important element of this struggle is that they resisted and won after being besieged for four long years. History is full of tales of heroic resistance by besieged peoples who fought with dignity, but most of them were defeated. Under Roman domination, Numantia is memorable because after 13 months of siege its people preferred death to defeat. At the siege of Constantinople a whole era was broken. In 1808 in Spain the siege of Gerona by Napoleonic troops should be remembered; it was defeated a year later. In the 20th century many Spanish cities suffered terrible sieges in the 1930s civil war, Zaragoza among them, and they also succumbed. At the end of the 20th century we were witnesses to the bloody siege of Sarajevo.

Only a few have come out victorious from prolonged sieges, as happened in the Second World War with Leningrad. The island of Mezcala sums up resistance to a long siege in which the defenders ended up winning.

“They wanted to capture the island”

Another original way the communards of Mezcala had of commemorating their bicentennial was the idea that the town’s children would hold workshops to put together a book that in their words and drawings would tell other children the history of the island’s defense in the era of Independence.

The children called their colorful 92-page book, including drawings and text, “Mezcala, they wanted to capture the island.” Their book relates not only the townspeople’s daily lives but also the strength it gives them to feel they’re heirs of the island’s defenders.

Some of the illustrated phrases are: “The rebels went to the island of Mezcala to fight the Spanish because the Spanish said the island was theirs, but the rebels wouldn’t let them say these things. So the rebels fought the Spanish”; “The Spanish fought the rebels, they fought because they wanted Mezcala Island and they wanted it in order to defeat the rebels. The rebels came from here and the island was… is ours”; “In the town the women made food and prepared bombs and took them to them”; “The Spanish wanted to take the island but they couldn’t”; “In the end the Spanish gave up and left the island to the indigenous people. In this way the indigenous people could live happily and plant their crops so they could eat as free people”; and “The fight was over and the indigenous people won and were happy because they had saved the island.”

From grandparents
to grandchildren

The historian Elisa Cárdenas pointed out that the children narrated these events in the first person plural—“We defended the island”—because there’s no separation from their ancestors; there’s a historical continuity from one generation to the next.

This book reveals that oral history doesn’t reside only in old people; it can also be incredibly alive among children. The common property commissariat president in Mezcala stressed that the book not only contained the thoughts of children but also of young people, parents and grandparents, “because we’ve grown up with this birthright and responsibility.”

In the book’s presentation the communards wrote: “We want to say to all the boys, girls, men and women who read this composition that they will enter into a dialogue with our history and our ancestors; they will find one of our country’s most beautiful indigenous struggles; they will dream about the heart of our people: the island of Mezcala. So we invite you to hear the thoughts of our community’s children who today, two hundred years later, proudly remember our rebels, those men who gave us liberty and taught us to live with dignity.”

Where the dead live on

A young woman from Mezcala insisted that the dead come back to life when the communal land and the island are being defended. The weapon they wield is their own history. The island is the heart of the community because it pulses with her people’s rebel blood. When one asks the old communards where the community’s borders end they say “in the middle of the water,” “just a bit behind the island” because it’s part of their land, just as the primordial 16th-century treaty established and as was accepted in the 1970s by the 20th-century agrarian documents.

In defense of history and the land

The Mezcala communards are engaging in other actions in defense of their history and against the government’s impositions. They oppose the reconstruction the government has been implementing on the island for the bicentenary celebrations. They have accused the organizers of the government’s bicentennial shindig of trying to ignore the communards’ traditional government, their general assembly.

The indigenous community has made various public statements. They have argued that any work in the community related to the land must be directly authorized by their assembly. Knowing their island and its history so well, they have accused the outsiders who turned up to restore the island’s old constructions of not respecting the buildings’ stones and rebuilding the floors without having salvaged the archeological remains to be found there. The community questioned why the conservation of the technical, historical, environmental and archeological conditions and heritage weren’t being taken into account. They complained that the intrusive restorers had destroyed the insurgents’ defenses or trenches and accused them of not working on rebel areas such as the underwater armaments and the trenches, prioritizing the jails instead, which were built after the insurgents’ resistance.

They made it publicly known that they disagreed with converting into a huge esplanade the area containing the remains of monuments that were part of the construction and the historical sense for which they were created. In particular they mentioned the defenses their ancestors used to shield themselves from the Spanish invaders’ attacks.

And of course they opposed the attempt to convert the island into a tourist trap. They reminded the government that they couldn’t do away with a people that has been defending its land and community with their lives for hundreds of years. The community opposed the intention of federal and state authorities to install a booth to charge people to visit the island, considering it a privatization of communal space and a merchandizing of their history.

They considered that reconstruction work done with the National Anthropology and History Institute’s permission had violated their territory and committed technical, historical and archeological errors. Through this dispute they have unmasked the ignorance and bad faith of the reconstruction work and put a stop to the actions the government had planned for bicentennial parties on the island.

The region’s new municipal president has accepted that from now on nothing will be done without the community’s consent. And the communards have announced a series of works autonomously implemented by them, with the people’s resources and efforts, for their town’s benefit and the protection of their territory and history, which won’t be connected to either political parties or personal interests.

A situation akin to 200 years ago

Just like the dictator Díaz, the PAN government is trying to take advantage of the centenary celebrations to shore up a rotten regime. But the discontent of those down below goes on growing. The elite struggling to prop up their domination without reaching agreement and those who maintain the feeble neoliberal project hold the upper hand. There are groups that aspire to solutions but find themselves tied only to what can be done from the State. The bicentennial and the centennial allude to uprisings by the downtrodden against bad living conditions and bad governments.

The current situation of aggravated poverty, great insecurity, abuses and insulting social inequality is similar to if not worse than that which unleashed the movements for Independence and the Revolution. Without forgetting that there are no predetermined mechanisms at work in history, this dramatic situation is a reality clamoring for drastic change.

The government and powers that be would like to invoke historic dates, bronze heroes and calcified tableaux to conceal grassroots processes. They want to break with the true significance of our history and our Latin American ties. They aim to strip the people of the historical potential that could make the current protest irresistible.

Above and below: Two celebrations

One of the biggest offenses of those up above against those down below is to try to perpetrate a theft of huge proportions: that of their history’s significance, of all symbolic charge, its dynamism and its affirming and ever-renewing flow.

Nonetheless, there persists down below the defense of a history that is still an active memory and this hinders plans for mystification with no questions asked. Up above there is a noisy, demagogic, manipulative celebration, empty of any content from the deeper Mexico, that is trying to make the country’s festival one more piece of the status quo. Down below the stealthy celebration of the grassroots movements persists, full of active content at the service of transformation and emancipation.

Up above they want to impose heteronomy and turn the bicentennial and centennial into fetishistic merchandise. Down below, liberating the catalyzing memory, changes are being generated in the silence of autonomous, daily events.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher at CIESAS West, and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

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